“A novelist writes a long kind of story,” Catherynne M. Valente writes in her new novel, Deathless, “with a lot of smaller stories in it, and motifs, and symbols, and sometimes things in the story really happened, and sometimes they didn’t.” Mercifully, that’s about as meta as Deathless gets. But it’s a line that echoes. Voiced by Valente’s protagonist—Marya Morevna, a daughter of the Russian Revolution who’s suddenly, savagely wooed by the legendary figure Koschei The Deathless—that brief passage sums up two of the book’s obsessions: folklore as fiction, and fiction as propaganda. More than that, though, Deathless potently illuminates how reality can be reordered and repurposed, for good or otherwise, by the powerful—whether they’re magical beings waging wars across the eons, or demagogues bent on using language to forge a new collective truth.
No reboot of Slavic folklore would be complete without the archetypal crone Baba Yaga, but Valente finds a fresh way to reinvent even that old, overused character. Now called Chairman Yaga so as not to appear counterrevolutionary in Stalin’s era, she becomes a figure as tragically locked into the mechanism of the new communist paradigm as the alluring, unsettlingly sympathetic Koschei himself. The book’s ultimate, poetically vague “redistribution of worlds” evokes Stalin’s own Great Plan For The Transformation Of Nature, only on a scale that factors in a landscape teeming with demons, imps, gun-goblins, armies of woven soldiers, and the Tsars of Life and Death themselves.
But what’s surprising about Deathless isn’t Valente’s ambition, it’s her clarity. Her previous novels, most notably 2009’s lush urban fantasy Palimpsest, verge on phantasmagoria. Deathless, though, is an exercise in restraint and precision, two things Valente has rarely been accused of before. With pinpoint prose that nonetheless swarms with multilayered lyricism and metaphorical richness, she traces Marya’s growth from a starry-eyed starveling under the heel of Soviet oppression to a determined woman hell-bent on liberating her own heart by liberating others. Tyranny of all types—political, matrimonial, even metaphysical—passes through Valente’s vivid, fable-tinted lens. In a sense, and on a smaller scale, Deathless does for Russia what Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell does for England: transfigures its indigenous myths while spinning a rousing yarn that, in spite of its clever self-awareness, aims straight for the soul. Valente may, as she puts it, “walk the same tale over and over, until you wear a groove in the world,” but she does so with the graceful step and sweep of a master.